Glen Rock, N.J.-based, punk troupe Titus Andronicus has a love-hate relationship with the Garden State--including Bruce Springsteen.
"Don't tell me I was born free," sings Patrick Stickles on the band's new album, Local Business. "That joke has been old since high school."
Yet Stickles can't help but channel and lambaste The Boss as he struggles to make a case that there's more to New Jersey than Springsteen. Boise Weekly caught up with Stickles on a cross-country tour two days after Hurricane Sandy rocked New Jersey.
"I could hope to get back quickly but that's not going to help me," said Stickles. "Hopefully by the time I get back, this whole hurricane will be just a memory."
Local Business, which came out Oct. 23 via XL Recordings, reconciles two sides of the band. Stickles said the album fuses in-studio work with live performance and that the band is now consistently replicating the record on stage nightly.
"We recorded it mostly live so there was a very long process of us just playing the songs over and over again, like 100 times, over a series of a couple of weeks," he said. "We kinda banged our heads against the wall for a while to get things right."
After adding two members, the band is now a quintet. It previously garnered critical acclaim with two solid albums: the raw record The Airing of Grievances (2008), which was followed by the band's critically acclaimed 2010 release, The Monitor.
The Monitor told a tale loosely based on the events of the American Civil War. Named after one of the Union's ironclad warships, the album was ambitiously filled with dubs of actors portraying William Lloyd Garrison, Jefferson Davis, Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln. But those "bells and whistles," as Stickles has called them, didn't lend themselves to the gritty reality of touring.
Still, Titus Andronicus has always been esoteric. The name comes from Stickles' varied interest in literature, borrowing the name of one of William Shakespeare's bloodiest plays.
"I don't think you need to know about [those references] to understand the music. I mean, you can just bop your head to it if you want to, but the opportunity to learn is there," he said. "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink."
Scholarly influences are less apparent on Local Business, which heralds a return to the garage-rock vibe of the band's debut album.
"I think it's different in that it's a little bit more of a stripped-down affair," he said. "It's a little less grandiose than the last one."
Local Business dispenses with the bagpipe solos, guest musicians and Ken Burns-style spoken-word tracks found on The Monitor. Stickles explains his new approach on "Ecce Homo," the first track on the album, singing: "OK, I think by now we've established / Everything is inherently worthless."
"All that stuff has fallen by the wayside now. No spoken word, no crazy instruments, just plain old guitars. I think that the guitar is still vital. We play guitars on stage, you understand, so it was important for us to make a record that was more like what we do live," he said.
With a new pared-down approach, Stickles said there were more opportunities for the band's personalities to shine through. Previously, his songwriting was cloaked in metaphor, he said, but that's a trick Local Business doesn't rely on. Stickles doesn't waste time telling how he feels, instead he acquaints listeners with the reality of growing up in the shadow of New York City on the track, "In a Big City," and with the pain of his struggle on "My Eating Disorder."
The album's wanderings are tied together through the name of the record, which has a confluence of meanings for Stickles.
"We used to sing about New Jersey a lot when I was living there as a younger man," he said. "This album, I mostly wrote while living in Brooklyn, which definitely informed what I was doing there. It's different living there, being a smaller part of a larger organism. ... That's definitely one of the themes; it's one of the meanings of Local Business."
Throughout the conversation, Stickles made references to commerce and nailed down a list of tenets of the band's credo. Honesty is a part of it, he said, but also "rocking, intensity, keeping a low overhead from a business angle, celebrating the little guy--the forgotten man or woman at the bottom of the economic ladder."
Local Business is also more political, the opposite of the "corporate ogre," of which Stickles said he isn't a fan.
"Local businesses are the lifeblood of American capitalism, in my mind," said Stickles. "Though that's not really how it's worked out so much lately, it's important that people can get empowered to do their own thing, to be their own bosses."
While on tour, Titus Andronicus encourages fans on Twitter to use the hashtag #localbusinessforever to give a shout-out to the best businesses in their towns.
"It's to get people excited about the local business in their community," he said. "And it's good for us because we're essentially tourists."
Titus Andronicus rolls into Boise Saturday, Nov. 17. The gang will take the stage twice in one evening, first at The Crux for an all-ages set, then around the corner at Neurolux. Asked if he thought playing all-ages shows is important, Stickles said emphatically, "Yes."
"To not do all-ages shows is a form of age discrimination, and that's got no place in punk--discrimination of any kind," he said. "It's supposed to be for everybody to enjoy."